Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Stateless Income and its companion, The Lessons of Stateless Income, together comprehensively analyze the tax consequences and policy implications of the phenomenon of “stateless income.” Stateless income comprises income derived for tax purposes by a multinational group from business activities in a country other than the domicile of the group’s ultimate parent company, but which is subject to tax only in a jurisdiction that is neither the source of the factors of production through which the income was derived, nor the domicile of the group’s parent company. Google Inc.’s “Double Irish Dutch Sandwich” structure is one example of stateless income tax planning in operation.
Stateless Income focuses on the consequences to current tax policies of stateless income tax planning. The Lessons of Stateless Income extends the analysis along two margins, by considering the implications of stateless income tax planning for the reliability of standard efficiency benchmarks relating to foreign direct investment, and by considering in detail the phenomenon’s implications for the design of future U.S. tax policy in this area, whether couched as the adoption of a territorial tax regime or a genuine worldwide tax consolidation system.
Stateless Income first demonstrates that the current U.S. tax rules governing income from foreign direct investments often are misapprehended: in practice the U.S. tax rules do not operate as a “worldwide” system of taxation, but rather as an ersatz variant on territorial systems, with hidden benefits and costs when compared to standard territorial regimes. This claim holds whether one analyzes these rules as a cash tax matter, or through the lens of financial accounting standards. The paper rejects as inconsistent with the data any suggestion that current law disadvantages U.S. multinational firms in respect of the effective foreign tax rates they suffer, when compared with their territorial-based competitors.
Stateless Income’s fundamental thesis is that the pervasive presence of stateless income tax planning changes everything. Stateless income privileges multinational firms over domestic ones by offering the former the prospect of capturing “tax rents” – low-risk inframarginal returns derived by moving income from high-tax foreign countries to low-tax ones. Other important implications of stateless income include the dissolution of any coherence to the concept of geographic source, the systematic bias towards offshore rather than domestic investment, the more surprising bias in favor of investment in high-tax foreign countries to provide the raw feedstock for the generation of low-tax foreign income in other countries, the erosion of the U.S. domestic tax base through debt-financed tax arbitrage, many instances of deadweight loss, and – essentially uniquely to the United States – the exacerbation of the lock-out phenomenon, under which the price that U.S. firms pay to enjoy the benefits of dramatically low foreign tax rates is the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of earnings ($1 trillion or more, by the most recent estimates) and cash outside the United States.
Stateless income tax planning as applied in practice to current U.S. law’s ersatz territorial tax system means that the lock-out effect now operates in fact as a kind of lock-in effect: firms retain more overseas earnings than they profitably can redeploy, to the great frustration of their shareholders, who would prefer that the cash be distributed to them. This tension between shareholders and management likely lies at the heart of current demands by U.S.-based multinational firms that the United States adopt a territorial tax system. The firms themselves are not greatly disadvantaged by the current U.S. tax system, but shareholders are. The ultimate reward of successful stateless income tax planning from this perspective should be massive stock repurchases, but instead shareholders are tantalized by glimpses of enormous cash hoards just out of their reach.
The Lessons of Stateless Income demonstrates that conclusions that are logically coherent in a world without stateless income do not follow once the presence of stateless income tax planning is considered. More specifically, The Lessons of Stateless Income identifies and develops the significance of implicit taxation as an underappreciated assumption in the capital ownership neutrality model that has been advanced as an argument why the United States ought to adopt a territorial tax system, and demonstrates how stateless income tax planning vitiates this critical assumption.
The Lessons of Stateless Income then considers the tax policies might be implemented to respond to a world imbued with stateless income. The paper looks at the problem from the perspective of both territorial tax system designs and a worldwide tax consolidation approach.
The Lessons of Stateless Income concludes that policymakers face a Hobson’s choice between the highly implausible (a territorial tax system with teeth) and the manifestly imperfect (worldwide tax consolidation). Because the former is so unrealistic, while the imperfections of the latter can be mitigated through the choice of tax rate (and ultimately by a more sophisticated approach to the taxation of capital income), the paper ultimately concludes by recommending a worldwide tax consolidation solution.